Laura Burden and her son

Laura Burden and her son, 14-month-old Griffen, shop at Barstons Child's Play in the Village of Cross Keys. "Smaller stores are less intense for kids," she said. (Photo by Donna M. Griffin)

Thousands of Baltimore-area shoppers hit the megamalls and superstores in search of holiday gifts this past weekend, but Ruth Levy wasn't one of them.

Instead, the city resident shopped for toys for her grandchildren at Barstons Child's Play, a small store in the Village of Cross Keys.

"It's overwhelmingly exhausting just thinking about it," Levy said at the notion of visiting a superstore this season. "I like everything about smaller stores -- and, here, they know their stock, it's always been a pleasant shopping experience."

Neither were Herb and Sandy Kasoff. They shunned the big-box stores to make their purchases at Barstons with their grandchildren.

"We like to go to the smaller shops," Herb Kasoff said. "They have more educational toys."

Mrs. Kasoff added, "It's not such a mob scene."

Frustrated with the huge crowds, impersonal service and traffic delays, Levy and the Kasoffs were among a fast-growing number of residents in the Baltimore region who spent the Thanksgiving Day weekend -- long considered the official start of the holiday retailing season -- shopping at small, privately owned stores.

Evidence is anecdotal, but local shopkeepers and retailing experts say many more people are passing over the huge discount stores, particularly on the Friday after Thanksgiving, to spend their limited shopping time -- and dollars -- searching out unique gifts and obtaining personal service at these small outlets.

"People still like to be waited on at stores with staff who are authoritative and know what they're doing," said George Whalin, president and chief executive of Retail Management Consultants in San Marcos, Calif. "People still like to go to stores that are fun. People still like to go to stores that offer a unique shopping experience."

The Washington-based National Retail Federation is predicting the best holiday shopping season since 1997, with sales up 5.7 percent over last year, to $217.4 billion, despite some consumer concerns about sluggish economic growth and jobs. That compares with a 2.2 percent increase in 2002.

Retailers also will benefit from one extra shopping day this year, for a total of 27 days.

In addition, online holiday sales are expected to increase this year, too. Forrester Research, the technology firm based in Cambridge, Mass., estimates that online purchases will increase 42 percent over last year, to $12.2 billion. The results include travel and auction sites.

Whalin predicts smaller retailers will have a good season, too. "And it's going to be very good for those who offer something different."

Recent economic realities have "really shaken out the marginal stores," he said. "There are some pretty good retailers left now."

As a result, the drive for the steadily shrinking consumer dollar is even more cut-throat. "It's too tough out there," Whalin said. "The business is just too tough now.

"Small retailers have to be better," he added. "They've got to be very different, and it's going to be that way forever."

It's this difference that brought Barbara Blair of Towson out Saturday to The Pleasure of Your Company, a gift shop at Greenspring Station in Baltimore County.

"The customer service provided is more personable," Blair said. "If you don't find what you need, they recommend another place."

Still, it was busy inside the store. Owner Hannah Keys Rodewald and her employees could not slow down enough for a lunch break because of the heavy customer traffic.